DEAD PRESIDENT: ZACHARY TAYLOR AND HIS CALAMITOUS CHOW DOWN

President’s Day mostly comes and goes with little to no fanfare, a paid holiday for a chosen few and maybe a great mattress sale, but this year it got me thinking, have there been any weird or extremely interesting causes of death for any of our former leaders? We all learn about assassinations of presidents in history class but I was looking for something a bit more unusual, and I found it – the death of Zachary Taylor.

Taylor was the 12th president of the United States and served just over a year. His term began in March 1849 and ended upon his surprising and untimely death in July 1850. Known more for his achievements in war than his presidency, Taylor made a name for himself by climbing the ranks of the military earning the nickname “Old Rough and Ready” for his ability to share in the hardships of battlefield duty with his troops.

So what were the circumstances surrounding this curious case?

It was a dreadfully hot and humid 4th of July when Zachary Taylor was called upon to make an appearance at a celebration in Washington DC. Specifically, he was asked to lead the pomp and circumstance surrounding the dedication of the land that would eventually become home to the Washington Monument. After the steamy ceremony, President Taylor made his way back to the White House where he cooled down with a large bowl of cherries and a glass of iced raw milk. As you can imagine, sanitation in those days was sub par even for the president, and food contamination was prevalent. After chowing down on this delectable combo Taylor bedded down for the evening and it wasn’t long before he was hit with some distressing symptoms which included severe cramping, diarrhea, nausea and eventually dehydration.

After days of suffering and the inabilty to eat anything other than ice chips the President called his wife to his bedside and asked her not to weep, saying: “I have always done my duty, I am ready to die. My only regret is for the friends I leave behind me.” Zachary Taylor died on the evening of July 9, 1850. He was sixty five years old.

The cause of death was officially listed by his personal physician as “cholera morbus” and thought to have been caused by his last meal of cherries and raw milk. Not to be confused with standard issue cholera, this causation was hallmarked by a bacterial infection of the small intestine. There was much controversy surrounding his death and with his status, theories of poisioning were commonplace. Especially with the rapid onset and manifestation as an intestinal disorder which was consistent with arsenic poisoning. It was such a popular theory that in the early 1990’s a former professor at University of Florida named Clara Rising asked Taylor’s closest living relative for permission to exhume some of his remains for testing, they agreed.

Dr. Richard Greathouse, the county coroner of Louisville, Kentucky would be charged with exhuming the portions of the body for testing. After careful examination of the samples he confirmed there was no evidence of poisoning whatsoever. The analysis concluded that Taylor had indeed contracted cholera morbus which is more commonly known as acute gastroenteritis.

These days it sounds ridiculous to think the pairing of the little red fruits and a frosty dairy beverage would cause death, but for over a century following the passing of President Zachary Taylor mothers and grandmothers across America warned their children against the potentially lethal combo of eating cherries and drinking milk.

The remains of President Taylor and his wife Margaret are interred in Louisville, Kentucky at the aptly named Zachary Taylor National Cemetery. There they rest eternally in a beautiful monument made of limestone, marble and granite nestled amongst some beautiful trees, not one of them cherry.

SOURCE CITATIONS

Marriott, Michael. President Zachary Taylor’s Body To Be Tested for Signs of Arsenic. June 15, 1991. He New York Times. New York, New York.

Schwartz, Allan B. Medical Mystery: Did this president suffer a death by cherries? May 6, 2018. The Inquirer. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

The Death of A President. July 17, 1850. The Lancaster Examiner. Lancaster, Pennsylvania

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